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Why we’re not going to see Sandra Shamas

In the past few years, Sandra Shamas has made a point of bringing her current work-in-progress to the Globe Theatre to workshop in front of a live audience.

Shamas is an internationally acclaimed comedian, and she is, indeed, very, very funny. My wife and I had a blast the first time we went, and made a point of going again the last time she was here, in 2001.

But Sandra Shamas is back, and this time…we find we don’t really care whether we go or not.

And here’s the reason:

The last time Shamas was here, she was in the midst of the first act of her one-woman show when someone sitting not too far from us, plagued by a tickle in her throat as so many of us are this time of year, took out a lozenge in cellophane and unwrapped it. I think she was trying to be quiet, but of course all that does is prolong the crackling sounds.

There’s a reason they make that speech about not unwrapping candies and turning off cellphones before live performances, particularly at the Globe here in Regina, which is in the round: the audience is right on top of you, and you can hear everything they say or do just as well as they can hear you. I’ve been in a couple of plays there myself–I know of what I speak.

Extraneous noises like that can be very distracting for performers. They hate it. But the show must go on, and all that, and so in general you ignore it and then complain about it back stage later.

Shamas, however, chose to stop in the middle of her piece, glare at the offending woman, and say, “I can hear you, you know.” She went on to make some comments along the lines of (I paraphrase–it was years ago) “How do you like everyone looking at you? Not very nice, is it?”

She did her best to shame and humiliate the poor woman, who may not have been an experienced theatre goer and may not have even been aware of the prohibition on crinkling cellophane, and in any event probably wanted the lozenge so she wouldn’t erupt into coughing, which would have been far more disruptive. Worse, Shamas simply instantly turned off the rather self-deprecating comic style she had been using in her act. It was as though she had lowered a pleasant mask and revealed an angry visage.

Shamas went on with her schtick, but for my wife and I, the joy had rather gone out of the evening. It took a long time for Shamas to even begin to rebuild the comic momentum she squandered with that episode. Audience laughter became subdued and uneasy.

At the start of the second act, Shamas had a chance to recover. At the Globe, the audience exits by walking across the stage. Someone had taken the opportunity to leave a cellophane-wrapped candy on Shamas’s chair during intermission. If she had made some sort of joke about it, or even acknowledged it in some way, done something to take the nasty edge off of the evening that she herself had put there, she could have won us back. Instead, she just picked it up and threw it off into the wings, without commenting on it at all.

So, Sandra Shamas is back. No doubt she’s still very funny. No doubt we’d enjoy the show. But…when we went in the theatre the last time we were here, we entered predisposed to like her, to enjoy being in her company for two hours. Now, thanks to one prima donna moment, we’re predisposed…not to dislike her, really, just simply not to care about her. Even after all this time, we find we have no real desire to spend a couple of more hours in her company, waiting to see if she drops the comic mask again.

Completely unfair of us, I know. And as I said, I quite understand Shamas’s annoyance. But she handled it poorly, and in the process, she lost a couple of incipient fans.

And so it’s worth remembering, when you really, really want to say or write something nasty or somehow punish someone for doing something that annoys you, that the momentary satisfaction you get out of it may not be worth the long-term consequences–especially if you’re someone in the public eye.

Especially in the age of blogs.

UPDATE: Hmmm. I just noticed, checking my Site Meter stats, that someone found with a search for work in progress Sandra Shamas. Which led me to my own previous mention of this incident, which I had quite forgotten. From my arts column “Professional Entertainment, Amateur Audiences“, in which I called, tongue in cheek, for the formation of Canadian Live Audience Professionals (CLAP, members to be called CLAPpers, of course):

They would know that one does not bring food items or mints wrapped in crinkly paper to the theatre, then spend several minutes opening them during quiet moments in the proceedings. (When I attended Sandra Shamas’s work in progress at Globe Theatre three weeks ago, a woman unfortunately did just that, earning a scathing comment from Shamas. Every actor who’s ever tried to play a scene while listening to crackling noises from the third row applauded her silently, though the audience seemed shocked. Had they all been members of CLAP, the issue would never have arisen.)

This told me two things. One, that the last time Sandra Shamas was here was 2001, not 1998 (1998 must have been the first time she brought her work in progress here) as I originally wrote in the post above, and, two, that I seemed more on her side than the audience’s at the time.

I plead the necessity of making anecdotes serve the purposes of the piece in which they are recounted. In my 2001 arts column my focus was on audience members who don’t know how to behave. But today, my focus was on how a single poorly chosen action can negatively affect people’s perceptions of you for years.

Unlike humans, one anecdote can serve two masters.

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